What Two New Studies Reveal About Kids and Screens

With screen time so high for kids and parents, who's making sure kids are OK?

Posted Nov 05, 2019

Image by Gary Cassel from Pixabay
Teens on phones
Source: Image by Gary Cassel from Pixabay

“Here you go,” I told my students. “Homework for your parents.”

After delivering a digital citizenship lesson on cyberbullying, online safety, reputation management, and screen time, I send students home with a list of activities they can do with a parent or caregiver to reinforce the digital life skills I’d just taught them. After all, parents claim they are worried about their digital kids and don’t have any idea how to help them navigate a world that wasn’t around when they were young. This, I thought, could help.

Yet, when I tried to give the handout to one lanky, sixth-grade boy, he told me, “Don’t bother. Last time I tried to get my mom’s attention for something like this, she stayed on the phone for an hour and a half, and after that, she moved on to Instagram. She doesn’t have time for this stuff.”

Research suggests he’s right. 

HP’s “The Real Report,” a recent survey on consumers’ relationships with screens, reveals that one in three parents admit to spending over five hours a day on their phone. These are the very same parents who worry about their kids spending too much time on their phones. 

This survey of over 7,500 adults in the U.S. and Canada explores how parents view the impact of screens on their kids. It finds that parents say they are worried about how screen time may impact their child’s social skills (61 percent). They’re also worried about their child’s ability to develop critical skills (58 percent). 

They may very well have cause to worry because when parents are on their phones, kids are on their own.

Screen Time Is High

Every few years, Common Sense Media releases a comprehensive study on media use by teens and tweens. Their most recent survey, released just last week, revealed that 8- to 12-year-olds spend five hours a day using screens. Teens spend seven-and-a-half hours on screens each day—and that doesn’t include screen use at school or for homework.

While these numbers are not all that much higher than they were when their previous study was released in 2015, we all know that kids are doing more and more of their homework online. In fact, they are doing an awful lot of in-school work online as well, due to an avalanche of educational technology products hitting the market each year that make it easier than ever for teachers to put their students behind a screen for a lesson in math, science, or just about anything else. All of this is ramping up screen time. 

So What Are They Doing Online?

Common Sense Media discovered that online video viewing (read: watching YouTube) has gone through the roof. Compared to their previous survey, more than twice as many young people are watching videos every day. The average daily time spent watching videos has roughly doubled to one hour each day. Video watching is the most popular activity among tweens and ranks second only to listening to music among teens. 

Keep in mind that YouTube employs algorithms to suggest video after video to its viewers. That’s hard for any of us to resist, let alone a kid. Additionally, these algorithms, though clever, don’t necessarily take a viewer’s age or maturity level into consideration before issuing a recommendation. So some of the videos your kids are watching may not be so appropriate for young viewers. But who's monitoring that? 

Here’s something else you might not know: YouTube says (yep, it’s on their site) that it is only to be used by those age 13 or older, yet 76 percent of 8- to 12-year-olds say they watch it. Even though YouTube Kids was created for younger users, only 23 percent of 8- to 12-year-old children claim they use it, according to Common Sense Media. And why would they? Many of the influencers they love and who target them are under 13, and they’re on the main YouTube site!

Take, for example, Ryan Kaji, the star of Ryan’s World. Young YouTubers like Ryan are racking up fans and followers in the millions and, get this, according to The Sun, more than a third of 6-to-17-year-olds aspire to be professional YouTubers themselves. 

Smartphone Ownership Starts Oh-So-Young

The number of 8-year-olds with phones grew from 11 percent in 2015 to 19 percent in Common Sense Media’s newest survey. By the age of 12, more than two-thirds (69 percent) of children are smartphone owners. And by age 18, 91 percent have smartphones.

There is a substantial disparity in screen media use between socioeconomic groups as well. Children from higher-income homes use an hour and 50 minutes less screen time than those from lower-income households (for teens, the disparity is similar). 

Kids Are Consuming, Not Producing

The big promise of digital media, and the thing that gets digital literacy people like me so excited, is the opportunity for creative kids to use digital tools to express themselves in new and exciting ways. Yet, sadly, according to the Common Sense Media study, that just ain’t happening. Screen use is still dominated by watching TV and videos, playing games, and using social media. The number of tweens or teens using digital tools to create music, art, video, and more remains incredibly low.  

According to the survey, no more than one in 10 tweens or teens say they enjoy things (“a lot”) like making digital art or graphics (10 percent of tweens and 9 percent of teens), creating digital music (4 percent of tweens and 5 percent of teens), coding (4 percent of tweens and 3 percent of teens), or designing or modifying their own video games (4 percent of tweens and 6 percent of teens). These low numbers are a crying shame.

Perhaps our most important task as parents and teachers is to help kids figure out how to use their tools productively and not just get used by them. Maybe we should put down our phones for a moment, stop scrolling through Instagram, perhaps even teach math offline… and have a conversation about what we want our tech time to look like in the future.

What Does It All Mean?

The most insightful part of the Common Sense Media survey, for me at least, lies in Common Sense Media Founder and CEO James P. Steyer’s opening letter. Steyer says, 

“…we are conducting the largest real-time experiment ever on a generation. We simply do not yet know the full social, emotional, and cognitive impacts of our children being increasingly consumed by their devices. But The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens 2019, an update to our 2015 study, shows worrisome indicators as our most vulnerable population—our kids—are navigating the increasingly sophisticated challenges of a digital world shaped by an unregulated industry that has little regard for their health or well-being.”

So with an industry unmindful (at best) of the vulnerabilities of youth and parents distracted by their phones, kids are left to their own devices trying to make sense of a confusing, distracting, and possibly even dangerous world. It’s time for a paradigm shift, don’t you think?